Ligue 1 burning questions: Can Nice win title, or will PSG turn it around?
Like in England, 2017 has started in France with some French Cup and League Cup games, but the return of Ligue 1 action this weekend sees a fascinating second half of the season. Here are 10 questions to set it up.
Can Nice win the league?
Nice finished 2016 winter champions, two points clear of Monaco and five of PSG, which is actually not a good omen. The three times in their long history that they were top of the French top flight at Christmas (all in the 1970s), they never went on to win. On the other hand, their four titles, all in the 1950s, came when they were not winter champions that season.
Yet they are in fantastic position. Like Leicester City last season, they will be able to focus only on the league, with a game per week, as they are out of the Europa League, the French Cup and the league cup, while PSG, Monaco and Lyon are still in four competitions. They have been a joy to watch with great football, solid at the back and explosive up front with Mario Balotelli, Alassane Pléa, Wylan Cyprien and Younes Belhanda. If they start 2017 well and keep their confidence high, they can repeat the Foxes' feat.
Are Monaco capable of competing on all fronts?
January will be a hectic month for l'ASM, with potentially eight games in less than four weeks. The team from the Principality is still in four competitions this season, and the longer they are, the harder it will be to cope. The depth of their squad is indeed not the biggest. Nabil Dirar and Adama Traoré are at the African Cup of Nations, Benjamin Mendy is suspended for two games, Abdou Diallo was not well, and Andrea Raggi is just back from injury.
They can't afford for any of their big players (Radamel Falcao, Kamil Glik, Jemerson, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Fabinho) to get injured, despite having Joao Moutinho and Kylian Mbappé as two good options on the bench.
A lot of the Monaco season could be sorted in the space of a few weeks. They are away at PSG the last weekend of January, at home against Nice the first weekend of February and at Manchester City on Feb. 21 in the Champions League.
Will Unai Emery finally sort things out in Paris?
It's been a very hot and cold first half of the season for the Spanish manager. It was never going to be easy for him to succeed Laurent Blanc and Zlatan Ibrahimovic while also trying to change the style of play of the team. He saw some very good performances that would have encouraged him and some really poor ones (four league defeats already!) that would have despaired him.
There has been some tension between him and the players, with some boos from the fans at times too. But Emery won't give up. He will keep working hard, and one cannot fault his thorough approach. He will need to win soon, though; otherwise things will get harder and harder.
Can Lyon finish in the top three?
This would be something special. Lyon had an on-and-off first half of the season with a lot of inconsistency to start; at one point, they dropped to ninth place. They ended 2016 in fine form, however, as seven wins in their past eight league matches have brought them back in the mix. They have a game in hand, away at Metz, and are currently in fourth place, five points behind PSG, eight behind Monaco and 10 behind Nice.
It won't be easy, of course. They will need to be excellent to break into the top three, considering they are now playing in the Europa League as well. They will have to travel to Paris and Saint-Etienne but will host Marseille, Monaco and Nice in 2017. Their clash with the current leaders is on the last day of the season. It looks like a perfect script.
Will this be the biggest relegation fight ever?
For the first time in more than 20 years, there will be a relegation playoff in France between the team in 18th position in Ligue 1 and the team that finishes third in Ligue 2. It will be spectacular, as will be the race not to go down. Ten clubs, from Lorient in 20th to Montpellier in 11th, are currently within seven points of each other in the second part of the table. This could be an unprecedented fight against relegation.
All those teams are of similar level, with similar issues (especially in terms of scoring goals), and it's easy to see them all in the pack until the end. It will be tense, with a lot at stake. I wouldn't be surprised if the two teams going straight down are confirmed only in the final weeks.
Is Ligue 1 about to become a bit more wacky?
Remember how good it was? Marcelo Bielsa took Ligue 1 by storm in 2014-2015, when he led his Marseille side to a well-deserved winter champion title. His players were running everywhere, pressing everything and being spectacular; the fans loved him. It didn't last, of course, as they went pear-shaped in the second half of the season, but Bielsa could be back very soon in France, this time with Lille. The future owner of the club, Gérard Lopez, is said to be close to securing Bielsa's services for the rest of the season.
Catch Cavani if you can!
The race for the top scorer prize in Ligue 1 is as fascinating as the race for the title. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has joined Man United, and his former teammate at PSG, Edinson Cavani, is doing even better than he did. With 18 goals in 17 league matches, the Uruguayan is leading the charts, but Ligue 1 is a striker's league this season. Alexandre Lacazette (13 in 14), Falcao (11 in 13), Pléa (10 in 19), Bafetimbi Gomis (10 in 19) or Balotelli (eight in nine) are all in pursuit.
Will Julian Draxler succeed in Paris?
PSG were very close to signing him in the summer but had to wait until January to secure his services. Julian Draxler, 23 years old and world champion with Germany in 2014, is another wide player (like Angel Di Maria, Lucas, Hatem Ben Arfa, Javier Pastore and Jonathan Ikoné), which is maybe not what they needed most. Yet he's extremely talented: Draxler has class, intelligence, flair and on his day can beat any defender. However, he has also had poor games. One wonders how he'll settle, given his expectations.
What if Marseille break the bank?
That's their objective. Frank McCourt, the new American owner, wants to invest around €75 million in transfers this winter. The dream of the former L.A. Dodgers boss is to bring Dimitri Payet back home only 18 months after his move from Marseille to West Ham. It could prove difficult, as the Hammers don't want to sell, but l'OM will try. They need to strengthen their squad, and they will do that. They finished 2016 very well and have great momentum under Rudi Garcia with players such as Gomis, Maxime Lopez or Florian Thauvin. With a bit more steel in defence, they can finish the season in strong fashion.
Can Guingamp hold on?
Last season it was Angers (third at Christmas) and Caen (fourth). This time, it's Guingamp. More than Nice, they are the real surprise of the season. They were 18th in the table at this stage last season, and they are now fifth, with 11 more points this campaign. Antoine Kombouaré, who arrived in the summer, is doing a fantastic job, but the second half of the season will be harder. Angers (ninth in the end) and Caen (seventh) could keep the pace, and Guingamp, with Marseille, Rennes, Saint-Etienne or Bordeaux behind them, will need something special to finish the season this high up.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.